Monday, November 21, 2011

A Writer's Guide to Taking Your Own Control

When I began reviewing, I accepted any and all books that came my way, because I wanted to give up-and-comers a chance. But after several writers who had paid to publish their own books lashed out at me for calling unpolished books unready for the marketplace, I began flatly rejecting all self-published and subsidy published books. It speaks volumes for Joel Friedlander that his book, A Self-Publisher's Companion, has convinced me to change my mind on that policy.

Friedlander zeroes in on the reasons I react adversely to self-published books. Too many are done hastily, with little interest paid to design, legibility, or whether the audience will enjoy the finished produce. Subsidy publishers in particular care little for whether the book sells, because they make their money from the author, not the reader. Many people who call themselves “self published” have merely printed their books, not published them.

But instead of calling a halt there, Friedlander looks at the difference between printing a book and truly publishing one. This means a sequential approach, starting with making sure the book is actually ready for distribution. Too many authors print cringe-inducing books because they rush past the editing stage, presenting us, the reading public, with prose that might make sense to the author. Without taking all the steps, such writers advertise their own amateurish tendencies.

This dovetails with Friedlander’s second point, that self-publishers must wear many hats. At some point they must stop being writers and become entrepreneurs. They must be serious enough about publishing to ask themselves what they need to add, what they need to cut, and then act on the answers. They must ask themselves what they cannot do for themselves. And they must admit when they need to seek help from outside.

Just because you have written a book does not mean you know how to arrange the pages for easy, pleasant reading. In the same way, many authors get caught up in the words they’ve written, and forget that the cover is an advertisement for the book. They either think the cover needs to represent their literary vision, or they care little for the cover and tear off a computer generated art project. Outside and in, the book ballyhoos its lack of insight.

Or authors never investigate their niche. Novelists and poets craft art that is a pale shadow of work already available. Nonfiction writers fail to gauge their audiences’ needs and produce work that is lackluster, uninformative, or just vague. Writers of any stripe enter the self-publishing game with poorly defined goals and little understanding of the business. But, Friedlander insists, their common mistakes are entirely avoidable—and he suggests how.

Consider all the church cookbooks or school histories you’ve bought from fundraisers. Consider the cockeyed prose, misplaced photos, and flimsy binding. That’s because the producers didn’t think of themselves as publishers. But Friedlander believes that every church circle or PTA committee could make themselves into the hometown Rachael Ray or David McCullough if they just took themselves seriously enough.

Friedlander made his publishing chops in the letterpress printing heyday, when typesetters actually set type in a frame. This made for a meticulous design approach, since each page was an artwork in its own right. When he discovered an untapped market, and no publisher with an interest in testing uncharted waters, he used his hard-won experience to publish his own book. Even in those pre-Internet days, he sold 10,000 copies over five printings.

Since then, he has guided other aspiring publishers through the design process, helping even complete novices produce professional books. And he has steered them through the post-printing arc, which is just as much of the publishing process. Through it all, he has stayed abreast of new developments, helping publishers utilize advancing technology, innovative publicity techniques, and emerging media.

This is not a how-to book. Friedlander will help you prioritize what goes into your publishing budget, but he will not quote figures to you. He will help you weigh options in e-publishing, but he will not coach you on using specific platforms. If you need a more nuts-and-bolts guide, I recommend Tom and Marilyn Ross’ The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing. Friedlander cares more about developing a productive publishing mindset.

Yet he should care about his area. He helps aspiring publishers identify the industry’s most neglected corners. And he has successfully persuaded me that self-publishing is a legitimate approach for those writers—and those reviewers—who treat it with the respect it deserves.

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